Olympian Gabby Douglas has broken through a racial barrier in sports only to be boxed in by old canards about who she is and where she comes from. The more complex story of her family’s influence on her rise on the way to gold deserves to be told.
Gabrielle Douglas, the first black woman to win gold in the gymnastics individual all-around, will not escape the burdens that the spotlight brings – especially when it comes to the media’s portrayal of her family.
To his credit, NBC’s Bob Costas highlighted the historic nature of the win in his closing remarks for the evening after it aired. But his analysis of the significance quickly turned to patting a “post-racial” America on the back: “The barriers have long since been down but sometimes there can be an imaginary barrier based on how one might see oneself,” he opined. Long down? Imaginary barrier? How one might see oneself?
That’s a very odd statement about an expensive sport that continues to be overwhelmingly white. Dominique Dawes blazed the trail in 1996 as the first black athlete (male or female) to win an Olympic medal in gymnastics (she won as part of the US team’s golden performance). And until now, few have followed her to compete in the games.
Gabby did imagine herself very differently, even compared to national team coordinator Marta Karolyi, who just six months ago considered her an “average good gymnast.”
While the media focused attention on her disappointed teammate, Jordyn Wieber, who didn’t make the cut in the all-around competition, Gabby gracefully flew above the razor-thin balance beam, peaking at the right time and in the right place.
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